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Chapter Sixteen.
 Ned and Tom take to Wandering—Philosophical Speculations—A Startling Apparition—The Digger Indians—Water boiled in a Basket—The Gloomy Pass—The Attack by Robbers—The Fight—A Surprise—The Encampment.  
Change is one of the laws of nature. We refer not to small-change, reader, but to physical, material change. Everything is given to change; men, and things, and place, and circumstances, all change, more or less, as time rolls on in its endless course. Following, then, this inevitable law of nature, we, too, will change the scene, and convey our reader deeper in among the plains and mountains of the far, “far west.”
It is a beautiful evening in July. The hot season has not yet succeeded in burning up all nature into a dry russet-brown. The whole face of the country is green and fresh after a recent shower, which has left myriads of diamond-drops trembling from the point of every leaf and blade. A wide valley, of a noble park-like appearance, is spread out before us, with scattered groups of trees all over it, blue mountain-ranges in the far distance circling round it, and a bright stream winding down its emerald breast. On the hill-sides the wild-flowers grow so thickly that they form a soft, thick couch to lie upon, immense trees, chiefly pines and cedars, rise here and there like giants above their fellows. Oaks, too, are numerous, and the scene in many places is covered with mansanita underwood, a graceful and beautiful shrub. The trees and shrubbery, however, are not so thickly planted as to intercept the view, and the ground undulates so much that occasionally we overtop them, and obtain a glimpse of the wide vale before us. Over the whole landscape there is a golden sunny haze, that enriches while it softens every object, and the balmy atmosphere is laden with the sweet perfume called forth by the passing shower.
One might fancy Eden to have been somewhat similar to this, and here, as there, the presence of the Lord might be recognised in a higher degree than in most other parts of this earth, for, in this almost untrodden wilderness, His pre-eminently beautiful works have not yet to any great extent been marred by the hand of man.
Far away towards the north, two horsemen may be seen wending their way through the country at a slow, ambling pace, as if they would fain prolong their ride in such a lovely vale. The one is Ned Sinton, the other Tom Collins.
It had cost these worthies a week of steady riding to reach the spot on which we now find them, during which time they had passed through great varieties of scenery, had seen many specimens of digging-life, and had experienced not a few vicissitudes; but their griefs were few and slight compared with their enjoyments, and, at the moment we overtake them, they were riding they knew not and they cared not whither! Sufficient for them to know that the wilds before them were illimitable; that their steeds were of the best and fleetest Mexican breed; that their purses were well-lined with dollars and gold-dust; that they were armed with rifles, pistols, knives, and ammunition, to the teeth; and that the land was swarming with game.
“’Tis a perfect paradise!” exclaimed Tom Collins, as they reined up on the brow of a hill to gaze at the magnificent prospect before them.
“Strange,” murmured Ned, half soliloquising, “that, although so wild and uncultivated, it should remind me so forcibly of home. Yonder bend in the stream, and the scenery round it, is so like to the spot where I was born, and where I spent my earliest years, that I can almost fancy the old house will come into view at the next turn.”
“It does indeed remind one of the cultivated parks of England,” replied Tom; “but almost all my early associations are connected with cities. I have seen little of uncontaminated nature all my life, except the blue sky through chimney tops, and even that was seen through a medium of smoke.”
“Do you know,” remarked Ned, as they resumed their journey at a slow pace, “it has always seemed to me that cities are unnatural monstrosities, and that there should be no such things!”
“Indeed,” replied Tom, laughing; “how, then, would you have men to live?”
“In the country, of course, in cottages and detached houses. I would sow London, Liverpool, Manchester, etcetera, broadcast over the land, so that there would be no spot in Britain in which there were not clusters of human dwellings, each with its little garden around it, and yet no spot on which a city could be found.”
“Hum, rather awkward for the transaction of business, I fear,” suggested Tom.
“Not a bit; our distances would be greater, but we could overcome that difficulty by using horses more than we do—and railroads.”
“And how would you manage with huge manufactories?” inquired Tom.
“I’ve not been able to solve that difficulty yet,” replied Ned, smiling; “but my not being able to point out how things may be put right, does not, in the least degree, alter the fact that, as they are at present, they are wrong.”
“Most true, my sagacious friend,” said Tom; “but, pray, how do you prove the fact that things are wrong?”
“I prove it thus:— You admit, I suppose, that the air of all large cities is unhealthy, as compared with that of the country, and that men and women who dwell in cities are neither so robust nor so healthy as those who dwell in country places?”
“I’m not sure that I do admit it,” answered Tom.
“Surely you don’t deny that people of the cities deem it a necessary of life to get off to the country at least once a year, in order to recruit, and that they invariably return better in health than when they left?”
“True; but that is the result of change.”
“Ay,” added Ned, “the result of change from worse to better.”
“Well, I admit it for the sake of argument.”
“Well, then, if the building of cities necessarily and inevitably creates a condition of atmosphere which is, to some extent, no matter how slight, prejudicial to health, those who build them and dwell in them are knowingly damaging the life which has been given them to be cherished and taken care of.”
“Ned,” said Tom, quietly, “you’re a goose!”
“Tom,” retorted Ned, “I know it; but, in the sense in which you apply the term, all men are geese. They are divided into two classes—namely, geese who are such because they can’t and won’t listen to reason, and geese who are such because they take the trouble to talk philosophically to the former; but to return from this digression, what think you of the argument?”
Tom replied by reining up his steed, pointing to an object in front, and inquiring, “What think you of that?”
The object referred to was a man, but, in appearance at least, he was not many degrees removed from the monkey. He was a black, squat, hideous-looking native, and his whole costume, besides the little strip of cloth usually worn by natives round the loins, consisted of a black silk hat and a pair of Wellington boots!
Dear reader, do not suppose that I am trying to impose upon your good-natured credulity. What I state is a fact, however unlikely it may appear in your eyes.
The natives of this part of the country are called digger Indians, not with reference to gold-digging, but from the fact of their digging subterranean dwellings, in which they pass the winter, and also from the fact that they grub in the earth a good deal for roots, on which they partly subsist. They are degraded, miserable creatures, and altogether uncivilised, besides being diminutive in stature.
Soon after the first flood of gold-hunters swept over their lands these poor creatures learned the value of gold, but they were too lazy to work diligently for it. They contented themselves with washing out enough to purchase a few articles of luxury, in the shape of cast-off apparel, from the white men. When stores began to be erected here and there throughout the country, they visited them to purchase fresh provisions and articles of dress, of which latter they soon became passionately fond.
But the digger Indians were not particular as to style or fashion—glitter and gay colour were the chief elements of attraction. Sometimes a naked savage might be seen going about with a second-hand dress-coat put on the wrong way, and buttoned up the back. Another would content himself with a red silk handkerchief tied round his head or shoulders. A third would thrust his spindle-shanks through the arms of a sleeved vest, and button the body round his loins; while a fourth, like the one now under consideration, would parade about in a hat and boots.
The poor digger had drawn the right boot on the left foot, and the left boot on the right—a matter of little moment, however, as they were immensely too large for him, as was also the hat, which only remained on his brows by being placed very much back on the head. He was a most singular being, and Ned and Tom, after the first glance of astonishment, were so un-mannered as to laugh at him until they almost fell off their horses. The digger was by no means disconcerted. He evidently was accustomed to the free and easy manners of white men, and while they rolled in their saddles, he stood quietly beside them, grinning hideously from ear to ear.
“Truly, a rare specimen of humanity,” cried Ned, when he recovered his composure. “Where did you come from, old boy?”
The digger shook his head, and uttered some unintelligible words.
“It’s of no use speaking to him; he don’t understand English,” said Tom Collins, with a somewhat puzzled expression.
The two friends made several attempts to ask him, by signs, where he lived, but they utterly failed. Their first efforts had the effect of making the man laugh, but their second attempts, being more energetic and extravagant, frightened him so that he manifested a disposition to run away. This disposition they purposely encouraged until he fairly took to his heels, and, by following him, they at last came upon the village in which his tribe resided.
Here they found an immense assemblage of men, and women, and children, whose appearance denoted dirtiness, laziness, and poverty. They were almost all in a state bordering on nudity, but a few of them wore miscellaneous portions of European apparel. The hair of the men was long, except on the forehead, where it was cut square, just above the eyebrows. The children wore no clothes at all. The infants were carried on stiff cradles, similar to those used by North American Indians. They all resided in tents, made of brushwood and sticks, and hundreds of mangy, half-starved curs dwelt along with them.
The hero of the hat and boots was soon propitiated by the gift of a few inches of tobacco, and Ned Sinton and Tom Collins were quickly on intimate terms with the whole tribe.
It is difficult to resist the tendency to laugh when a human being stands before you in a ludicrously-meagre costume, making hideous grimaces with his features, and remarkable contortions with his limbs, in the vain efforts to make himself understood by one who does not speak his language! Ned’s powers of endurance were tested in this way by the chief of the tribe, an elderly man with a beard so sparse that each stumpy hair might have been easily counted.
This individual was clad in the rough, ragged blue coat usually worn by Irish labourers of the poorest class. It was donned with the tails in front; and two brass buttons, the last survivors of a once glittering double row, fastened it across the back of its savage owner.
“What can he mean?” said Ned, at the close of a series of pantomimic speeches, in which the Indian vainly endeavoured to get him to understand something having reference to the mountains beyond, for he pointed repeatedly towards them.
“It seems to me that he would have us understand,” said Tom, “that the road lies before us, and the sooner we take ourselves off the better.”
Ned shook his head. “I don’t think that likely; he seems rather to wish us to remain; more than once he has pointed to his tent, and beckoned us to enter.”
“Perhaps the old fellow wants us to become members of his tribe,” suggested Tom. “Evidently he cannot lead his braves on the war-path as he was wont to do, and he wishes to make you chief in his room. What think you? Shall we remain? The blue coat would suit you admirably.”
During this colloquy the old savage looked from one speaker to another with great eagerness, as if trying to comprehend what they said, then, renewing his gesticulations, he succeeded at last in convincing the travellers that he wished them not to pursue their journey any further in the direction in which they were going. This was a request with which they did not, however, feel disposed to comply; but seeing that he was particularly anxious that they should accept of his hospitality, they dismounted, and, fastening their horses to a tree close beside the opening of the chief’s hut, they entered.
The inside of this curious bee-hive of a dwelling was dirty and dark, besides being half-full of smoke, created by the pipe of a squaw—the old man’s wife—who regaled herself there with the soothing weed. There were several dogs there also, and two particularly small infants in wooden cradles, who were tied up like mummies, and did nothing but stare right before them into space.
“What’s that?” inquired Tom, pointing to a basketful of smoking water.
“It looks like a basket,” replied Ned.
“It is a basket,” remarked Tom, examining the article in question, “and, as I live, superb soup in it.”
“Tom,” said Ned Sinton, solemnly, “have a care; if it is soup, depend upon it, dogs or rats form the basis of its composition.”
“Ned,” said Tom, with equal solemnity, “eat, and ask no questions.”
Tom followed his own advice by accepting a dish of soup, with a large lump of meat in it, which was at that moment offered to him by the old chief who also urged Ned Sinton to partake; but he declined, and, lighting his pipe, proceeded to enjoy a smoke, at the same time handing the old man a plug of tobacco, which he accepted promptly, and began to use forthwith.
While thus engaged, they had an opportunity of observing how the squaw boiled water in a basket. Laying aside her pipe, she hauled out a goody-sized and very neatly-made basket of wicker-work, so closely woven by her own ingenious hands, that it was perfectly water-tight; this she three-quarters filled, and then put into it red-hot stones, which she brought in from a fire kindled outside. The stones were thrown in in succession, till the temperature was raised to the boiling point, and afterwards a little dead animal was put into the basket.
The sight of this caused Tom Collins to terminate his meal somewhat abruptly, and induced Ned to advise him to try a little more.
“No, thank you,” replied Tom, lighting his pipe hastily, and taking up a bow and several arrows, which he appeared to regard with more than usual interest. The bow was beautifully made;—rather short, and tipped with horn.
The arrows were formed of two distinct pieces of wood spliced together, and were shod with flint; they were feathered in the usual way. All the articles manufactured by these natives were neatly done, and evinced considerable skill in the use of their few and simple tools.
After resting half-an-hour, the two friends rose to depart, and again the old Indian manifested much anxiety to prevail on them to remain; but resisting all his entreaties, they mounted their horses and rode away, carrying with them the good wishes of the community, by the courtesy of their manners, and a somewhat liberal distribution of tobacco at parting.
The country through which they passed became wilder at every step, for each hour brought them visibly nearer the mountain-range, and towards night-fall they entered one of the smaller passes or ravines that divided the lower range of hills at which they first arrived. Here a rugged precipice, from which projected pendent rocks and scrubby trees, rose abruptly on the right of the road, and a dense thicket of underwood, mingled with huge masses of fallen rock, lay on their left. We use the word road advisedly, for the broad highway of the flowering plains, over which the horsemen had just passed, narrowed at this spot as it entered the ravine, and was a pretty-well-defined path, over which parties of diggers and wandering Indians occasionally passed.
“Does not this wild spot remind you of the nursery tales we used to read?” said Ned, as they entered the somewhat gloomy defile, “which used to begin, ‘Once upon a time—’”
“Hist, Ned, is that a grizzly?”
Both riders drew up abruptly, and grasped their rifles.
“I hear nothing,” whispered Ned.
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